Frontline Leadership

By Scott Dickson

Businesses are continually tested—by economic cycles, disruptive competitors, new technologies, or by sudden events that permanently alter the industry or landscape. Each challenge can pull leaders in multiple directions. But in my experience, one of the most important places for a leader to focus is on the teams of people on the front lines of the business. By physically showing up where these employees work and by spending time to get to know them, you demonstrate that you care about them—which is exactly the message you need them to deliver to your customers.

I learned the power of Frontline Leadership as the CEO of Vanguard airlines during the months following September 11, 2001. Immediately after the event, airlines were grounded for several days. When the restrictions were lifted, passengers understandably didn’t return to their previous flying behaviors. This caused our revenue to plummet. We also incurred new costs associated with implementing system-wide changes in our operations as the government and the industry worked to implement new security regulations. The biggest challenge, though, was keeping employees focused on our customers and providing a level of service that would keep them calm and patient as they faced the new impositions on air travel.

After I got done with my “day” job, I would head to the airport to work the ticket counter, check in customers, and help search bags. Other leaders soon joined me. It gave us a chance to connect with smaller groups of employees and observe firsthand the challenges they faced. We could also share our thoughts about what would be required to get through this period. But most important, word spread throughout the company that the leadership truly cared about the people working on the front lines.


Leaders tend to hire and train people in their own image. If the prevailing style of leadership is oriented toward people—with an emphasis on authenticity, empathy, compassion, and communication skills—this style will influence how lower-level employees interact with the organization’s customers. On the other hand, if corporate leadership comes across as impersonal or calculating with employees, these same behaviors will emerge in the company’s customer service or partner relationships.

At Brimstone, a core belief is that an organization is a lengthening shadow of its senior leaders. Their actions, more than their words, define the blueprints for the organization’s culture. If a leader ever wants to know how she or he is doing, they only need to reflect on how their employees conduct themselves in times of challenge. Most likely, employees will be mirroring the behaviors they’ve seen in their senior leaders.

Frontline Leadership gives your employees a more complete picture of who you are—as a person and a leader. It breaks down the barriers that separate corporate leaders from the greater workforce. In essence, the more present you are with people on the front lines, the more accurately they can mirror the behaviors and values that will help a company rise to a challenge. But here’s the rub: if a leader waits for a crisis to show up on the front lines, the impact will be minimal. Leaders need to make Frontline Leadership a regular practice—one that continually deepens their relationships and credibility away from corporate headquarters—so that when the business is tested, the people on the front lines know how to respond.


Practicing Frontline Leadership takes extra effort on your part. It asks that you show up in places and in ways that might feel unorthodox. But at its core, this way of leading is centered on making authentic connections with the people in your organization—a practice that can only make you more effective as a leader. As you think about how you might practice this way of leading, below are some of the key insights about Frontline Leadership that I’ve identified over the years.


Leading on the front lines of your organization means getting away from the office and away from the meetings, conferences, phone calls, and e-mails. That may not be easy to do; in fact, it might create inconveniences for you and some of the people you work with. But it will be worth the effort, particularly at the times when your company finds itself up against a tough challenge.


It’s human nature to work harder for someone who cares about you as a person. For that reason, front-line leadership means becoming personally involved in the lives of the people who work under you, as much as it is possible and appropriate. This goes beyond the hackneyed concept of “management by walking around,” where your presence might be seen but not necessarily felt. Making authentic connections means removing the barriers between “work” and “life,” and taking a personal interest in employees’ successes and failures. Sharing your experience with a word of encouragement or advice about their careers can make a tremendous impact on employees. And going a step further to attend weddings, funerals, and birthday parties, or sending thank-you notes and flowers to the partners of employees who have worked long hours builds a personal connection that makes the bonds in your organization stronger.


Organizations are best at painting a picture of where the business is going and what contributions individuals can make to accelerate progress. This type of top-down communications is important to helping people understand a vision, but it only gets them partway to alignment. When you show up on the front lines intent on listening rather than broadcasting, you create the opportunity to open up a deeper level of dialogue with employees. You learn what people care about and how they want to grow and advance in their careers, and you gain insight into what’s required to help people on the front lines build the bridges up from their personal goals to the organization’s goals.


Frontline Leadership requires a willingness on your part to do what you are asking other people to do. I personally believe this means going out on the front lines ahead of others, and then encouraging them to join you. The vast majority of leadership teams immediately see the wisdom and value of Frontline Leadership. For the people who don’t, you might need to have a heart-to-heart with them to help them understand the impact this type of leadership can make and why it needs to be prioritized. This piece of advice comes with one word of warning: if leaders go to the front lines only once, their actions could appear inauthentic, which would actually undermine relationships. When you encourage others to join you, make sure they see this as a commitment to showing up on a regular basis.


Earlier in my career, I had a role at TACA Airlines in Central America where I was in charge of Planning and Revenue management. One of the essential ingredients of success in the airline industry is making sure planes take off and land on time. At one point, our on-time flights had dipped to around 65%. The senior leadership team explored what we could do to improve this number. We collected key data, but also started gathering insights every time we flew—by spending time at the counter checking people in, talking with flight attendants and pilots, and asking every employee to identify where they saw problems that were impacting on-time performance. With the information we gathered, we were able improve our on-time rate to 90% over 18 months. When you have firsthand knowledge of the issues that people on the front lines and customers are dealing with, you have not only greater empathy, but also a deeper understanding of what’s required to drive immediate change.


You don’t have to be on the senior leadership team to practice Frontline Leadership. No matter where you sit in an organization, you can make a positive impact on the people you manage. At the early part of my career, I worked at the second tier of leadership in planning and scheduling for a large urban transit system. The senior leaders weren’t interested in breaking down the barriers between corporate leaders and the workforce, but I didn’t let that stop me from getting out on the front lines and building connections where I thought it would make a difference. I learned that the changes I was able to make, though smaller, still helped to improve the experiences we could deliver to customers.

Frontline Leadership is not a new thing. Herb Kelleher famously built Southwest Airlines on the foundation of the relationship between the company and its employees. Howard Schultz built the allure of Starbucks not with splashy advertising, but by showing genuine care for the company’s partners (the term they use for their employees), who would then act as ambassadors for the brand. Today’s technology companies create physical spaces defined by open seating plans where leaders and the workforce sit side-by-side. This said, becoming a skilled frontline leader takes commitment, diligence, and a heartfelt belief that taking the time to build relationships with people up and down your organization is good for the business and a valuable part of your journey as a leader. In my experience, there is no greater reward for a leader than witnessing a workforce come together in the face of a challenge. And I believe that Frontline Leadership can inspire employees to bring their best selves to work every day.


We're looking forward to hearing from you!

the art of feedback